Remembering Robert Isabell, Partydom's King of Elegant Style

By Ted Kruckel July 10, 2009, 2:28 PM EDT

First came the flowers. When I was working for Elle in the early 1990s, I went to the relocation launch of Henri Bendel, when the store moved from 57th Street to Fifth Avenue. When you entered the atrium, there were two giant urns of white French tulips, one on each side.  Hundreds, maybe thousands in each setting, but not one touching another, all of them just sort of drooping out in perfect symmetry—and lit so dramatically that, honestly, the sneak peek of the multimillion-dollar store was a bit of a bore after that. “Who did the flowers?” I asked. Robert Isabell.

Later I came to work with Robert a number of times. It fascinated me how much he hustled to make the parties fun—but never really participated himself. Once at some $5,000-a-plate dinner, God knows where, I was lurking around, trying not to be seen, talking on the phone, and I bumped into him. He was hiding behind a statue and a little curtain. He was wearing a black leather biker jacket, but in a fancy way. “Shhhh, I don’t want the clients to know I’m still here.”

He lived around the corner from me, and we went to all the same stores and restaurants. We became friendly, and I went to his house for drinks a few times. The house was something else, like Fantasia meets The Munsters. None of the stairs had banisters or anything to lean on.

I remember remarking on a piece of mercury glass he had on display. I told him I collected it, too. I had like five good pieces. I followed him down a dark passageway into a small, shelved antechamber—his house had lots of antechambers—where he had a few hundred pieces of mercury glass, all nicer than mine. I asked why they were all hidden there in the back. “What good is owning a collection if everyone can just see it?”

Once at an InStyle cocktailer at his house, a giant candle sconce dripped, like, a half pound of wax on my shoulder while I spoke to a girl from William Morris. It was my new black velvet jacket, and as I tried to rub the wax off, it smeared everywhere. Instantly, Robert was behind me.

We went into the kitchen. I use the word kitchen loosely, there were fridges and shelves and such, but unless there was a caterer, it was spookily devoid of the boring detritus of life. No milk cartons. No butter. Stuff like that. He took my jacket from me, folded it, and stuck it in the freezer. “I’ll have it ready before you go.”  

I think he was slightly agoraphobic. Is that the word for when you can’t stand crowds? Not what you’d expect from by far the most talented event designer I have ever met. I used to see Robert at lunch at The Spotted Pig all the time, but never at dinner. “Oh I could never come here at night with all those people,” he explained.

When he launched his perfumes—I think there were four, each a specific floral scent—he called me and asked me for my advice. I had done a few fragrance launches. He gave me a little presentation in the giant garage that was his office. It was fascinating but a little confusing as well. “Are you sure it’s such a good idea to come out with all these different scents at the same time? Why not do one each season, like Freesia in the spring?” I could tell he was disappointed by my pedestrian response. The fragrances didn’t do very well, but I think you can still buy the candles.

Vanity Fair did a huge profile on Robert. It was kind of a takedown, and all sorts of bad things made it in. I looked for it on the site this morning but it didn’t come up, for which I’m relieved. He had his theories on why the story was so negative and personally invasive. He acted like it didn’t bother him, but I could tell it did. About two years ago I called him and asked if I could do a column on him for BizBash. “I’d really rather you didn’t.”  So I didn’t.

I know he recently let his top lighting person, Liz Garvin, go and she was his ace in the hole. Second to flowers, or maybe not, came lighting to Robert. I asked Liz to comment for this piece and she said lawyers forbade it. Uh oh. Today’s paper said he died of natural causes, but I wish I had checked in on him a few weeks back when the thought occurred.

He drove this retro truck around, perfectly polished. Not turquoise, not chartreuse, not cerulean, but something in that area I guess. It was a color all his own and I will miss it. 

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